Alcatraz Island’s diverse history

No holiday to San Francisco is complete without a trip to Alcatraz Island. As well as being the site of one of the most famous maximum security prisons in the world, its history is far more varied and far reaching than that. If you don’t believe me, read on or book yourself a trip with Air Express and experience it for yourself. Remember that you need to make sure you have enough time on your holiday to visit Alcatraz, get in touch with ESTA USA to ensure that you have the correct visa with enough days to visit this infamous site.


These days the name Alcatraz is synonymous with crime and punishment, as well as a lack of hope, but the moniker has much more mundane origins. In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala named it La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translates as the Island of the Pelicans. He was charting San Francisco Bay and this small uninhabited island was somewhat featureless save for the birds.


By 1847 the US military was looking to secure its land and saw the potential in the island as a site upon which to build a fortification. A number of geological surveys were carried out and by 1853 construction had begun.

It was kitted out with impressive guns and cannons that could sink a ship at three miles distance. Despite this might never really being put to the test, the island became a symbol of US military power.


As modern weaponry had made much of the island’s artillery obsolete, officials began to think of using Alcatraz as a location for holding captives. Its isolation and the freezing waters that surrounded it were seen as particularly advantageous to this use.

In 1861 the first 26 prisoners arrived from the Civil War, but by 1898 with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the island’s number of inhabitants had swollen to 450.


The earthquake that shook San Francisco in 1906 made it necessary to find an alternative place to the mainland to confine civilian prisoners and Alcatraz was chosen

as their destination. By 1912 it was decided that a purpose-built cell house needed to be constructed and this was full to capacity when the 20s came roaring in.


Despite its isolation, conditions within Alcatraz were not too bad in the intervening years – baseball field was built and regular recreational activities were staged. By 1934, the running of the prison became too expensive and it was closed down.

Ownership fell into the hands of the Department of Justice and as the Great Depression took hold, crime rates spiralled out of control. There was a need for a prison that not only incarcerated criminals, but acted as a deterrent. Renovations on Alcatraz began.

Tool-proof bars and window coverings were installed, along with gun galleries, teargas canisters in the ceiling above the dining hall and cement poured into the utility tunnels. Engineers were making Alcatraz a place of no escape and creating its dreaded reputation.

Under the watchful eye of strict prison warden James Johnston, the first inmates started to arrive. Among them were Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. There was one guard to every three prisoners and even Capone once confessed that Alcatraz had got him licked.


Over the years there were 14 attempted escapes from Alcatraz, but the most famous was carried out by Frank Lee Morris and Clarence and John Anglin. All three managed to escape from the cell house, but it has never been established whether they survived the freezing waters of the bay, as they were never seen again.


The prison was closed and the island all but abandoned in 1963 and despite various proposals was not made into a shopping centre and hotel complex or a West Coast version of the Statue of Liberty.


Between 1969 and 1971 a large group of Native Americans took over the island, hoping to create a heritage centre for their culture. Conditions were difficult and after an

accidental fire burnt down several key buildings, federal marshals removed all the remaining inhabitants.

Graffiti that was daubed on some of the structures, including the water tower, can still be seen today. Despite a general no tolerance policy of such painting across America, officials have allowed it to stay as it marks part of the island’s unique history.

Present day

Alcatraz is now an ecological reserve, due to the colony of western gulls that have made their home on the former prison island. Since 1973 when it was opened to the public it has also been a popular tourist attraction, with one million people visiting every year.